One of his primary objectives is to teach and encourage children to write from an early age.
“Most kids have a huge listening vocabulary,” he said. “Next is speaking, and then reading. By the time you get to their writing vocabulary, it’s next to nothing.”
“Dr. D.,” as he is known, started out playing football in high school in Brooklyn. He met his wife, another great love in his life, after a game. “We were running off of the field, and a friend called out to me from the stands,” he recalled. “He said something, I don’t even remember what. I asked him who the girl standing next to him was.” One introduction, and 67 years later Dr. D. and Marilyn are still going strong.
“As high school sweethearts, we didn’t have a lot of money for dates,” he said. “So we would chip in five cents each and ride to the Manhattan terminal of the Staten Island Ferry. The ferry was another five cents each. It went from the south end of Manhattan north to Staten Island, past the Statue of Liberty, then back south. The secret was to just not get off of the ferry. That’s how we had long dates without spending too much money. Including the trip back to Brooklyn, it was 30 cents for both of us.”
After four years of riding that ferry back and forth, Frank and Marilyn were married. They have spent the 67 years since then getting to know each other better, growing together, and falling deeper in love by the year.
“She’s a good thinker, a good reader,” he said. “We may have different opinions, but we know how to listen to each other, even after all these years.”
Dr. D. attended Lafayette College for his undergraduate degree, and then started teaching English and coaching high school football in the area. After his in-laws retired and moved to Miami, he and his family came to visit.
“We really liked it down here,” he said. “This was the life. I went around while we were on vacation, and by luck of the draw, I made a connection. A high school in Miami offered me a position teaching English and coaching. Then I got the head coach job.”
He taught and coached in a few different schools in the Miami area, then returned to school to start on his Masters Degree. He graduated from the University of Miami, and decided continue on to his doctorate.
“I left high school work and went into working at colleges,” he explained. “I got a job at the Memphis University, teaching communication skills and working with the football team. Every year there would be a big coaches’ convention with the high school coaches and the college coaches all getting together, and every year my friend Joe and I would have dinner together and talk. It was always the academics first, then the athletics that we believed in.”
His friend “Joe” was actually Joe Paterno, and Dr. D. ended up as part of the athletic department at Penn State working for Joe.
“Joe had a rule – no knuckleheads!” Dr. D. laughed. “To him, athletics were a means to an end, the end being an education. He would promise the parents of his recruits that their children would get the best education possible. And we kept that promise.”
He continued. “Athletics are a lot like the kids and their vocabulary. As you move along, the pool gets smaller and smaller. Thousands of kids play football in high school. Some of those get to play at the college level. Finally, maybe one or two percent of the guys who start out in high school make it to the pros, if that. My job at Penn State was to make sure that the football players got the education they would need to have a decent life if they weren’t one of the lucky ones.”
When Dr. D. started work as an athletic academic advisor, most schools did not even have the position as part of their staff. He and the few others doing the job formed an organization, the N4A, the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics.
“Today, there are over 1,000 people who do the job,” he said proudly.
Beyond football and English, Dr. D. has an interest in international affairs, and he is a member of the Foreign Policy Association.
“Every year, they put out a briefing book named ‘Great Decisions,’ and it has eight articles on what they consider to be the most pressing issues of the year,” he said. “Everything from cyber-warfare to the situation in Mexico, to when and how to exit Afghanistan and Iraq. I love being a member of the group. Of course, I’m the only academic in my particular group, and I’m surrounded by former generals and CEOs. I live just west of D.C., so it’s an interesting mix. We don’t always agree, and we have very different viewpoints on some topics.”
Dr. D. and Marilyn have three children, two daughters and one son. All three live in Florida. In fact, it is through one of his daughters that he arrived in Boca Grande. “My daughter and son-in-law have a house on the island, and I come down every year for a couple of months,” he said. “To me, this is idyllic. The people are great, the community center is really a center of the community. And the school, well, it’s like a modern day one-room school house,” he marveled.
His second daughter lives in the Florida Keys. His son manages golf courses. “My son and son-in-law, they really love golf,” he said. “They like to come out and play on the course at Gasparilla Inn. Me, not so much, but they really enjoy it.”
He treasures the few months each year that he’s in Florida, and The Island School has also become a large part of his life. It’s a fulfilling and ongoing task to teach youngsters to love the written word, and when he first approached the principal at The Island School, he wasn’t sure how she would respond.
“I was here a few years ago, and I called Rosa Ramos, the principal at the school,” he said. “I told her I wanted to come over and talk to her about working with the children on poetry and Shakespeare. She told me to come on over, and we outlined what the class would be. And so I started. At first it was only poetry, but the second year we added to it.”
The poets that he teaches are favorites of children.
“Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and of course, Jack Prelutsky, the poet laureate of kid’s literature,” he said. “They all have different styles, but those styles appeal to the children. The touch of the absurd is what they like. The first thing we do is give them their own diary, and explain what it is for. Then we give each student a pencil, which the Gasparilla Inn generously provides. Finally, we give them the assignment ... write! Just pick up the pencil and write! The only way they are going to learn is by doing. They can listen, they can talk, they can read. But most of them have never had to sit down to write regularly.”
There is a Mark Twain quote that Dr. D. uses to make a point about vocabulary.
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
“If the kids don’t know how to find the right word, then they have to settle for the bugs,” he said. “We want them to have lightning. At this young age, this is when you start to motivate them to learn.” Dr. D. explained that he likes to slip in other poets, like Robert Frost and Joyce Kilmer. If he can get them to laugh, he’s more likely to get them to learn.
“Then we start Shakespeare,” he said. “We read together in class and discuss the who, what, why, when, where and how. Then the kids go home and write about what they have learned. In the end, it all comes back to writing.”
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